“I’ve tried tacos in 27 states in Mexico, and every time I go to a new town I see something I’ve never heard of,” says Bill Esparza, the de facto ringleader of L.A.’s taco cognoscenti and founder of the essential food blog, Street Gourmet LA. “It’s virtually impossible to know all.”
It goes to show that for even the most prodigious eaters like Esparza, taco culture still requires a vast amount of scholarship.
Part of this has to do with a lack of literature on the subject—there is no comprehensive list or book, though many have made attempts. Esparza says the recently published Tacopedia does a terrible job cataloging all the variations. “It’s a chilangro-centric list that never seems to leave Mexico City, missing most of the tacos of the north and only accomplishing a list of popular tacos that you could find on Google.” Martha Chapa’s Tacos de Mexico is reliable, but provides only broad categories.
Despite our increasing taco fanaticism and a growing Hispanic population, that range and depth shrinks down considerably once you cross the border and scope out the taquería scene here in the U.S.
The popularity of, say, carnitas or al pastor, and not other specialties, is a reflection of the taco-vendor demographic. “In L.A. you get lots of Mexico City and Jalisco-style vendors. NYC has lots of Pueblans—they come from a state that has incredible cuisine, but not a strong taco culture. The border states of the U.S. have a connection to northern Mexican states. In California we have fish tacos. Texas has tacos de cabrito and de trompo. Arizona has Sonoran-style burritos. You hardly see taco vendors that go back to Mexico to keep up with the trends.”
Here, Esparza digs deep into his travel archives to unearth 10 regional specialties that haven’t yet gained currency in the U.S.
All photos by Bill Esparza
Tacos de quelites
Esparza says: “Tacos made with foraged greens from the quelites family would be the rage among the quinoa and kale set. These are found at stands in the Central part of Mexico, and definitely in Mexico City. Take a warm corn tortilla and spoon on some vegetables cooked with amaranth, huauzontles, quintonil, or even spinach, and enjoy the true vegetarian, pre-Hispanic pleasures of Mexico without having to suffer the indignity of cheese made with cashew nuts.”
Where to find it: Tacos Quetzalcoatl in East L.A. (South side of East Olympic Boulevard, just west of Kern Avenue, in front of Janitzio Meat and Produce).
Tacos de tuetano (bone marrow)
Esparza says: “In the state of Nuevo Leon, one of Mexico’s steak capitals, you can get roasted marrow bones and a stack of tortillas for making your own tacos. These have become a trend at fine dining Mexican restaurants in Baja California and Mexico City, following in the footsteps of the great chefs of Monterrey, Nuevo León. If you’ve ever indulged in a hot tortilla slathered with a little butter, this is a whole other level of richness. The marrow gives it a concentrated flavor of seasoned, buttery beef. It’s a simple and powerful taste requiring a quality corn tortilla.” (Photo: Romero y Azahar)
Tacos de Cazuela
Esparza says: “Anyone whoever told you that Oaxaca has nothing to do with tacos is full of beans. Tacos de cazuela, a local style of tacos de guisado in Oaxaca, are very delicious and unique. Other places in Mexico do tacos de cazuela, but these come in a large corn tortilla smeared with anise-scented refried black beans, avocado sauce, and salsa as a base, set on a comal with a guisado of your choice: higaditos (little livers), salsa de chicharron, or tinga de pollo. A very distinctly Oaxacan flavor comes from the beans, the tortilla, and spices in the fillings.”
Burritos de carne con chile
Esparza says: “The flavors of this burrito—burritos are a regional name for tacos de harina, or tacos in flour tortillas (sorry, the debate is closed)—come from the magnificent flour tortillas only found in Sonora and the shredded beef, slowly cooked in chiles Colorados. The beef juices mix with the chiles and simple spicing for an unforgettable flavor—it might be my favorite dish in Mexico. You might be able to find these in Arizona, but without the Sonoran tortilla, these are dead to me.”
Esparza says: “Burritos again! If you’ve been lucky enough to have passed through Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua for the amazing quesadillas and burritos, hopefully you went in for the works—the montado. A montado consists of a Chihuahua-style flour tortilla with melted Chihuahua cheese, a flattened chile relleno made with a chilaca pepper, and a guisado of your choice, like beef in a red or green salsa. Despite the layers of ingredients, this burrito is thin but still big on flavor.”
Esparza says: “Okay, I know, you have carne asada just down the street from you; it’s everywhere—not! Carne asada in the north is as serious as mole in Oaxaca. In these states, where artisanal flour tortillas are loaded with fine steak house cuts of beef cooked over mesquite and dressed with a variety of regional salsas and condiments, carne asada is a completely different product. Cooked on a flat-top, with inferior meat, with store-bought corn tortillas by some guy from Vera Cruz—GTFOH, no thanks.”
Tacos de lechon
Esparza says: “Who doesn’t love suckling pig? A visit to the markets in Aguascalientes will find you in front of a group of busy stands serving slow-roasted suckling pig tacos and beautiful pico de gallo salsas made with the luxurious chile manzano (which are very expensive in the U.S.). With so many chef-driven taquerias, you’d think this would be a no-brainer—but instead taqueros pursue the more difficult carnitas, even though most chefs already have experience cooking roasted suckling pig.”
Where to find it: Chichen Itza (3655 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA) offers tacos de lechon every Sunday.
Tacos de Embutidos (stuffed sausages)
Esparza says: “I’m not talking about your mass-produced or supermarket-made chorizo. I want to have a Tolucan sausage artisan open a taqueria that serves green and red chorizo, longaniza, obispo (white-pork sausage), and queso de puerco (head cheese). All of these delicious sausages are sliced then cooked on a flat top and served with guacamole, salsa, and sometimes French fries. Green chorizo and French fries on a tortilla—need I say more? You can’t get these north of Mexico City for the most part. Without using a quality sausage, the many chorizo tacos served in the U.S. deliver strong artificial flavors instead of the more balanced sausages made by skilled sausage makers, who use muscle tissue and fresh ingredients for their products.”
Tacos de guisado
Esparza says: “These are all those cazuelas or pots or steam trays you see in places like Mexico City, but they’re really all over Mexico. In D.F., you get a layer of Mexican rice (it’s just called rice in Mexico) on a tortilla to soak up the sauces from various braises, stews, stir-fries, and beyond. It could be chicken gizzards in a salsa roja or a spicy tinga; in the north it would be desebrada (shredded beef) in salsa verde on a flour tortilla. It’s basically the home-cooked stews for workers on the go, wrapped in a tortilla.”
Seafood tacos (beyond fried fish)
Esparza says: “We have fish tacos in the U.S., and L.A. has the San Juan de Los Lagos-style shrimp tacos gobernador and marlin tacos, but most varieties of seafood tacos from the East and West coasts of Mexico are not available in the States. These are also offered as a type of taco de guisado, usually involving seafood cooked with a sauce, like stewed manta-ray tacos from Sonora, spicy shrimp tacos in Tijuana, tuna-fin tacos in Sinaloa, or tacos de pejelagarto (freshwater gar) in Tabasco. There are too many to list!”